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Six U.S. soldiers die in Iraq as U.N. prepares for a visit

Roadside bombs killed six American soldiers in Iraq on Tuesday, and two Iraqi employees of CNN were shot dead in an ambush.

The violence came as U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced in Paris that he will send a team of experts to Iraq to help end the deadlock over transferring power to the Iraqi people. He said the team will go as soon as security arrangements are ready.

But the security situation in Iraq remained volatile.

The military said an Army team was traveling in the town of Khaldiyah around 12:55 p.m. when a roadside bomb went off near their Humvee, killing three soldiers. When a rescue team arrived, guerrillas opened fire on the second vehicle, the military said.

The attack took place in the Sunni Triangle, an area north and west of Baghdad where many people remain loyal to ousted President Saddam Hussein. The triangle, particularly the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, has been among the most dangerous places for U.S. occupation troops and Iraqis who cooperate with them. On Monday, seven Iraqi policemen in Ramadi were killed in two hit-and-run shooting attacks, and over the weekend, car bombs killed two U.S. soldiers in Fallujah and three in Khaldiyah.

South of Baghdad, another roadside bomb killed three Americans and wounded three Tuesday night, according to military officials. The attack occurred about 8 p.m. near the town of Iskandariyah, about 30 miles from the capital.

Nevertheless, the number of daily attacks on occupation forces has decreased dramatically over the past few months: from about 30 or so to 16, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmit, deputy chief of operations, told reporters at a briefing. "We believe the amount of violence in the country right now is manageable," he said.

The fatal attack on a two-car CNN convoy occurred south of Baghdad. The CNN team was returning to the capital after a reporting trip in southern Iraq when they were ambushed, the news network said in a statement. A driver and an interpreter-producer in one car were shot and killed. A cameraman in the second car was lightly injured by a bullet that nicked his head. Correspondent Michael Holmes and others riding with him were uninjured.

Elsewhere, U.S. troops killed three suspected members of a guerrilla cell during raids Tuesday in the central Iraqi town of Beiji, the Army said. And a car bomb was discovered near coalition and Iraqi Governing Council offices.

The violence underscored concerns about security.

In Paris, Annan noted, "There is a certain impasse on the ground in Iraq today." He said he had agreed to an urgent request of U.S., British and Iraqi officials at a meeting at the United Nations on Jan. 19 to send a team to Iraq to assess the feasibility of holding direct elections before the end of May.

"As soon as we have signs that the practical arrangements and the security arrangements are ready, and that they are ready to protect my people, we are ready to send the mission," he said. A U.N. military adviser and security coordinator have been in Baghdad since Friday to assess the security situation.

Annan did not specify the timing, composition, size or exact mandate of the mission, although the New York Times quoted unnamed diplomats in New York as saying they hoped the mission could go next week.

The United States has cited the ongoing violence in arguing against demands by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani for the direct election of a provisional legislature, which in turn will select a government to take power by July 1. Instead, Washington wants the lawmakers chosen in 18 regional caucuses.

Annan said the mission will solicit the views of Iraqis to find alternative ways to choose a provisional government. Shiite Muslim leaders have said Sistani wants to hear alternatives to the caucus plan if the U.N. team says it's not feasible to hold elections by the end of June.

Iraqi leaders have urged the United Nations to return to provide legitimacy to the new government and avoid the stigma of association with the U.S.-led occupation. U.S. officials believe Sistani, who has refused to meet with American administrator L. Paul Bremer, would agree to deal with the United Nations.

The U.N. chief also said sending in "blue helmet" peacekeepers is not on the agenda, although he favors a multinational force for Iraq someday.

"I believe what we can anticipate would be a multinational force authorized by the Security Council, which could help and work with Iraqis to stabilize Iraq and make it safer," Annan said. "This would be a multinational force, with the support of the Security Council, and not "blue helmets' per se."

Troops in official U.N. peacekeeping missions wear distinctive blue helmets.

In Baghdad, coalition spokesman Dan Senor welcomed Annan's decision and said the United States and its partners would protect the U.N. team.

"We believe we have got sufficient capability to maintain a reasonable security level here in the country and we look forward to the U.N. coming down to make that (assessment) as well," Brig. Gen. Kimmit said.

Annan's announcement signaled the world organization's re-entry into Iraq three months after its international staff was removed from the country after attacks on relief workers and the bombing of its Baghdad headquarters. Twenty-two people, including the U.N. mission chief, Sergio Vieira de Mello, were killed in the attack. Annan said he did not intend to send a permanent replacement for Vieira de Mello at this time.

_ Information from the Washington Post, Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.